Sometimes, in a mystery, or a Police or Law Procedural, the writers will have a criminal who is intentionally sympathetic to the audience; sometimes to amplify the drama, sometimes to make the problem a true moral dilemma, and sometimes just because the story is Ripped from the Headlines, and the sympathetic part is necessary to get to the Headline in question.
Note that the crime in question need not necessarily be murder; the title comes from the fact that, in these shows, the crime is Always Murder.
This trope can also show up in other genres, but its natural stomping grounds are mystery or some kind of procedural. Expect the victim to have been an asshole.
See also Manslaughter Provocation, and Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain for those who put the "pathetic" in "sympathetic". If the character was introduced and fleshed out before he was revealed to be a murderer, it's Sympathetic Murder Backstory. See also Asshole Victim for cases where the murder is sympathetic primarily because the victim was so unsympathetic.
No Real Life Examples, Please! Although Truth in Television, its controversial nature would be glorifying murderers.
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Lucy. DearGod, Lucy! Even being a mass murderer with a penchant for Slasher Smiles and Cold-Blooded Torture isn't enough to keep her from being sympathetic; her backstory is just that crappy that you can't help but want to give her a hug even when she's in the middle of eviscerating some innocent or not-so-innocent soul.
Case Closed seems to like having the murderer be a genuinely nice person put into an unfortunate circumstance, and the victim be such a complete Jerkass that you don't mind their death. One episode even has a staged kidnapping where the "victim" didn't mind being kidnapped, and hugged the kidnapper over her own dad. Harsh.
Another case involved a man who was in a relationship with an old friend who didn't want to commit, so he broke up with her. Years later, he got engaged to another woman. The first woman returns and has gone full psycho bitch. She's threatening to send photos of them while they were dating and pass them off as if he were cheating. Too bad both of them happened to be friends of Kogoro Mouri, who is genuienly hurt at the killer's betrayal of his trust and friendship.
Another one involves a girl who fell into the wrong crowd and was indirectly involved in a big theft that resulted in the suicide of the person who was burglarized. This caused her to hit the Moral Event Horizon and she decided the crowd was terrible, so she went back to school. However, the leader of the gang came back into her life and blackmailed her. All she wanted was to get him out of her life and put that part behind her, so she decided to end it by threatening him away with a knife instead of paying him off. The blackmailer then attacked her and she stabbed him in the struggle. Granted, this wasn't exactly pre-meditated and she did do it in self defense, but after the Jerk Ass Victim, very few people would have not felt sorry for her. Even though she did have an Idiot Ball and threatened to kill him - still won't get her off the legal hook.
You can makes another two cases out of Billionaire Birthday Blues. Killed a Rich Bitch responsible for a death of the girl you loved? Simple, BUT taped her up and slowly drown her to force her to have painful death and on top of it, on her birthday? EVIL. Also, it's clearly seen by the Grandmother of the girl that Ran does resemble her. Ichieda can chose to not drag her into part of his plan he still DO. Yes Ichieda your motive might be sympathetic but your methods are INHUMAN. The grandmother herself even lampshaded this.
Higurashi: When They Cry has this in spades. Most of the main characters end up as this in some version of the world. Keiichi killed Satoko's abusive uncle to protect her, Rena killed Satako's uncle and his girlfriend to protect her father from their blackmail (and stop the girlfriend from throttling her). Shion is a subversion because, while starting off tragic, it's ruined by her going Ax-Crazy on Keiichi, Mion, Rika, and Satoko even after realizing that she's wrong. It turns out much later that there were ways to avoid these and still solve the problems...but dang if it didn't feel good watching some of those jerks get it.
The author discusses this in the Staff Room portion of the Eye-opening Arc (Sound Novel only) where he talks about how much sympathy a murderer receives depends on that person's motives (and that the level of sympathy someone will have for the murderer will vary from person to person) while he still believes that murder is still murder regardless of ones motive. See the Higurashi analysis page for more on this.
Gokuaku no Hana ("Flower of Carnage") does this with none other than Jagi of Fist of the North Star infamy...sort of. Mildly subverted by itself, as that sympathy will be for who he was.
Alma Karma from D.Gray-Man, who may have had a worse childhood then even Allen!
In Cowboy Bebop, Alyssa's boyfriend, Rint, in "Ganymede Elegy" shot and killed a loan shark during a scuffle with the loan shark's muscle to protect Alyssa. Jet implies at the end that he might get off on manslaughter or imperfect self-defence.
Brock Johnson from Turnabout Gallows killed Robin Wolfe, who had essentially driven Eddie Johnson, the killer's younger brother to suicide.
An interesting case occurs in Turnabout From Heaven, in which Diana Wheatley is accused of killing her abusive father, Buck. Post-Heel-Face Turn Edgeworth lampshades this trope, saying that he sympathizes with her, but she must pay for her crime. However, Phoenix works, as always, to poke holes in the case, leading the suspicion to Diana's mother, Dreama, who would be a case, as it is initially thought that she killed Buck for harming Diana. But in the end, Buck's death was not the result of murder at all, as his cat came into contact with buckwheat, and accidentally caused him to ingest some.
A completely unexpected and unusual example comes from Attack on Titan. The Colossal Titan, Armored Titan, and the Female Titan all turn out to be sympathetic once their Secret Identities are revealed. Though mass murderers responsible for much of the death in the series, all three are revealed to be Child Soldiers (or possibly even Tyke Bombs) traumatized by their actions and state they didn't understand when they began their mission, which has to be done.
Happens quite often in Diabolik, with many of his victims being worse criminals than him that happened to have crossed him.
The story The Sweet Death has a very strange example: the victim had survived an attempted murder at the hands of his cheating wife and her lover but was so crippled that he could only blink, so, when he accidentally met Diabolik, he asked to be mercy-killed and avenged. After securing the loot, Diabolik killed him and framed his wife and her lover in a way they'd get sentenced to death and executed.
An issue of The Incredible Hulk features Doc Samson dealing with an assassin sentenced to the electric chair after murdering a senator; not until after she's been executed does he discover that she killed the man because he'd been beating his wife, who was an old friend of the killer's.
The film Red Dragon plays up the book's depiction of Francis Dolarhyde as someone who is not so much a man who does not enjoy his serial killing as a Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities)-riddled individual whose alternate personality bullies him into committing his atrocities. For the most part, at least.
Dolarhyde is only sympathetic if the titular dragon was really an alternate personality and not just a personification of his homicidal urges. The ending really suggests that the whole deceleration of his violent impulses, culminating in his Heroic Sacrifice to spare Reba, was really Dolarhyde hamming it up as part of his Batman Gambit to kill Will's family.
The mentally unstable George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) from the 1953 film Niagara. His wife (Marilyn Monroe) and her lover are plotting his murder (after, it is implied, deliberately driving him mad), but the plot backfires and Loomis kills the lover in self-defence. Later, he vengefully murders his wife, and is overcome with remorse. At the end of the film, while trapped with an innocent girl in a boat hurtling toward the edge of Niagara Falls, he helps her climb safely out onto a rock before falling to his death over the edge, possibly making this an example of Redemption Equals Death.
The titular character from Psycho is a very deeply disturbed man, and the movie is directed in such a way as to elicit sympathy from the audience after he kills Marion. In the end, he becomes a figure of pity and is states to not really be responsible for his own actions.
This trope was rather oddly zigzagged in KillerKiller (2007), in which the girl doing all the on-screen killing was actually not such a sympathetic character, but some of her Serial Killer victims managed to be, due in part to Protagonist-Centered Morality—which is not to say they weren't AssholeVictims or that viewers were going to be too sorry to see some of them die. Just to muddy the waters further, some of the victims' conversations about the various murders they'd committed were Played for Laughs.
Carl Lee Hailey in A Time to Kill (and the book it's based on, naturally), so very much.
The woman Harry Callahan pursued in Sudden Impact was the victim of a gang rape who is killing off her rapists one by one. It's notable for including a rare example of a female Asshole Victim and even rarer example of a female rapist (the same victim).
In the 1993 film Desperate Justice, also known as A Mother's Revenge, a 12-year-old girl named Wendy is raped and beaten by a janitor at her school that she trusted. Which is not a spoiler since it happens early in the film and kicks off the entire plot. The spoiler, and where this trope comes into play, is that the janitor is declared innocent at the trial, in large part because his mother lied about having dinner with him at the time of the murder. This (combined with the janitor smiling and laughing about the verdict) pisses Wendy's mother off so much that she shoots and murders the janitor at the trial, and she is then the Sympathetic Murderer for the rest of the film. The main "plot" of the film then centers around whether the mother is really sympathetic or whether she's no better than the janitor.
Bronislav Korchinsky in the 1959 film Tiger Bay. Murders his ex-lover in a jealous moment of passion, and kidnaps the only witness, 11-year-old Gillie, but is also a Friend to All Children who strikes up an Odd Friendship with his hostage and exhibits genuine remorse. It helps that he eventually saves Gillie from drowning, even though this allows the police to apprehend him.
Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking. He may be a convicted murderer himself, but he's hardly an unsympathetic one. Even Sister Helen Prejean sympathized with him when she helps to be a spiritual adviser for him.
In the Miss Marple short story "Death by Drowning", the victim was pregnant by a man who had no intention of marrying her; she was expected to marry the Dogged Nice Guy she'd dumped in his favor. The Dogged Nice Guy's landlady, however, was a Widow Woman who'd survived a bad marriage and appreciated nice guys, and snapped.
In the Miss Marple short story "The Idol House of Astarte", the killing was not premeditated and was almost immediately regretted; the killer became a Death Seeker.
Murder on the Orient Express: the murderers end up getting away with it after Poirot figures out their crime. It helps that Casetti had very much duped the system into not putting him on the death row for the Daisy Armstrong nightmare, and the conspirators were rectifying that distortion.
Curtain: Poirot himself kills Stephen Norton, in order to prevent him from continuing his string of murders-by-proxy. A string which nearly turned Hastings into one of Norton's dupes. After killing Norton, Poirot lets himself die by not taking his medication.
In Death on the Nile, Jackie only got involved in the murder in order to help her money-greedy fiance, Simon, get away with marrying and murdering a rich heiress (which he couldn't have pulled off alone, although he was determined to try), and only as a last resort after encouraging him to dump her for the victim if that was what he wanted (he didn't, but the victim pursued him anyway with no regard for his intended's feelings.) Poirot allows Jackie to kill herself, and she takes Simon with her.
The murderer in A Murder Is Announcedfirst had her early life destroyed by a medical condition which her father refused to have operated on, and then had an inheritance snatched away by her sister's untimely death. Her impersonation of her sister in order to inherit was threatened by the victim, who remembered her. She comes across as a weak and kindly Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds who was driven to murder through bad luck, her own emotional weakness, and her gradual descent into insanity.
A rule of thumb for Agatha Christie is that around 80% of sympathetic murderers are terminally ill, so that the protagonist can feel comfortable with not turning them in. If you're a Sympathetic Murderer who wants to live, you better be really justified.
A Study In Scarlet. The victims had been responsible for an Arranged Marriage that involved kidnapping the bride, killing her father in the process. Her true love had finally tracked them down and killed them.
In the short story "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange", the Asshole Victim was a drunken, abusive husband; the Sympathetic Murderer was actually guilty either of manslaughter or self-defense, since the husband attacked him when he caught him talking with his wife, but the circumstances made it look very bad.
In the short story "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot", the first set of crimes is avenged by one of these.
In the short story "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge", the actual victim was a would-be Sympathetic Murderer who was killed by his target (an ex-dictator who had killed the victim's father, among others). It is strongly implied that more successful Sympathetic Murderers caught up with the target in the end.
In the case of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes and Watson actually witness the murder of the title character, an utterly odious blackmailer, but opt not to report it because a) They were burgling the man's house at the time, making it difficult to explain how they saw the crime committed, b) Holmes has a great deal of sympathy with anyone who was a victim of the blackmailer striking back at him, and c) the killer is implied to be Royalty.
The short story "Overheard on a Balcony", in which more than one person tried to kill the victim on the same evening, mainly because he was an absolute bastard and a blackmailer.
The finale of Murder in Montparnasse can be considered to invoke this trope - the victim had committed at least three murders, and at least two of the investigations had been botched, so various parties took matters into their own hands.
Murder in the Dark: the various attempts on the life of Gerald Templar are eventually traced to his long-suffering, unappreciated butler/business manager.
Dead Man's Chest: The death of Mrs McNaster is revealed to be murder, done by Bridget, one of the housemaids who'd had enough of how Mrs McNaster abused her companion.
Death By Water: the jewels stolen were removed from the thieves and sent to those who had been wronged by those who they'd belonged to (although at least one of the victims had no known... well, victim.)
Disturbing as it may be, one cannot help but feel at least a little pity for the two killers described in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.
In fact, this may have been what Capote was going for, as he spent a lot of time with the killers when he was researching for the book (especially Perry Smith who, depending on your perspective, may have had a Freudian Excuse) and began to sympathize with them.
The eponymous protagonist in Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King, a long-suffering wife of an abusive relationship. However, what pushed her over the brink wasn't her husband's treatment of her, it was his treatment of their children (emotional abuse of one son, sexual abuse of their daughter, and cleaning out the college savings accounts Dolores had worked long and hard to build up).
Also done with most of the inmates in The Green Mile; while they probably weren't on the outside, on Death Row most are repentant and sympathetic. One inmate, a black woman, could be argued to be sympathetic both in and out of prison, since she killed a two-timing husband. Averted with William Wharton and John Coffey; the former because he was thoroughly unrepentant, the latter because he didn't kill anyone.
In Death: the murderer in Witness In Death turns out to be this. The victim was a bastard in a number of ways. What pushed her into killing him was the fact that he deliberately had sex with their daughter, crowed about it, and threatened to have a threesome composed of him, her, and their daughter.
The murderer's first kill gets full sympathy points. However, her second kill (that of a blackmailer who found out about her first crime) comes off as more cold-blooded and self-serving, and therefore less sympathetic.
Peter in Nineteen Minutes in which a bullied teenager has snapped and committed a school shooting, killing most of his bullies and critically wounding another.
The Dragon Age tie in book Asunder has Cole, a spirit and point of view character who kills people because it keeps him from feeling like he's fading. All his victims want to die and he's very sympathetic, but he's still a murderer.
Seth in A Necessary End by Peter Robinson. Seth's wife participated in a demonstration that became violent. A police officer hit her head with a truncheon. A few months later, she started showing symptoms of brain injury. A dizzy spell causes her to fall off her bicycle which leads to a car fatally striking her. She was also pregnant at the time. Seth finds out the identity of the police officer (PC Gill) who hit her and goes to a demonstration to confront him, bringing a knife "just in case." He sees PC Gill treating a young woman roughly, which causes a flashback to his wife's assault. This is the last straw for him and he stabs Gill in the chest. Inspector Alan Banks thinks that what Seth did was understandable because "he had been pushed far beyond breaking point."
In Billy Budd, when the title character kills Claggart, Vere says, "Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!"
The main character in Nedra Tyre's "The Gentle Miss Bluebeard," one Mary Anne Beard, made a bit of a hobby out of euthanasia.
Breaking Bad has Jesse Pinkman during and after he kills Gale Boetticher. The Tears of Remorse during the murder and Heroic BSOD he's in afterwards, show that he is not a simple cold-blooded killer and is really not built for the profession that he's in.
In one episode, the aging actress who committed the murder has six months to live due to a brain tumor that also leads to her forgetting she committed the crime.
A rather meta episode featured none other than William Shatner as the star of an anti-Columbo-like Show Within The Show. At the start, he talks about how his show makes the murderer sympathetic in some episodes. Lo and behold, the Shatner character then becomes a sympathetic murderer.
At least, that's what he thought.
Heck, this was a slight problem with the series pilot - the murderer got too much screen time and became sympathetic by default. And then Columbo is a complete and utter jerkass. This was fixed with the second pilot, however.
Donald Pleasance's killer wine conoisseur from "Any Port In A Storm" was nothing if not this. His murder was a crime of passion, committed because his brother was going to take away his vineyard - the only place where he'd ever felt truly happy.
Half of the offenders on Criminal Minds are sympathetic. (It might or might not help that the team solves crimes by trying to get into the head of the perp.)
The episode "True Night" featured a Serial Killer focusing on members of a certain street gang. The killer turned out to be a comic book artist who had a psychotic break (and thus wasn't even aware of what he was doing) after said street gang forced him to watch them murder his pregnant fiancée before brutally stabbing him and leaving him for dead. Even the team felt sorry for him.
Poor, poor Tobias Hankel. Brutally abused from a young age by his violent, fundamentalist father, spent years taking Dilaudid as an attempt to escape from his awful life, and ended up with Dissociative Identity Disorder, with one of his personalities being that of his deceased father. But what makes him really sympathetic is the fact that, during the time he was holding Reid hostage, whenever he adopted the personality of his father and hurt Reid, he would afterwards do his best to clean him up and try to stop his pain.
In one episode, there are seemingly random killings, and the team believes it to be a homeless person. It turns out to be a former soldier with severe PTSD, who still believes he is in combat and feels terribly guilty about killing a young man from the other side. In the end, he's gunned down for apparently trying to kill a young boy, but with his dying breath, asked if the boy was safe.
One episode involved a Serial Killer with OCD who, as a boy, watched his father kill his mother, went on to commit similar crimes, and bonded with a blind boy. It didn't help that said Serial Killer was absolutely adorable.
And because of the blind boy (whose mother he'd killed), he saw what he'd become. At least, that's what the end of the episode implied.
The killer from "Haunted", a previously non-violent man who had a psychotic break as a result of newly-unlocked memories of childhood trauma that he simply couldn't cope with.
Megan Kane, the high-class escort who killed some of her obscenely-rich clients who refused to pay one red cent in child support.
The woman in New Orleans who was raped and then got no justice for it, before she became a killer.
You've Got Male: An ex-con visits a woman he met via email while in prison, her sister shows up and taunts her over this, the two of them get into a fight, and the sister accidentally kills her. The sister then tells the convict that she'll blame him; thinking that no one would believe him he kills her out of desperation to avoid going back to jail.
Killer: Who'd believe a guy like me?
Grissom: A guy like me.
An aversion from CSI appears in the episode Killer. The episode shows the murderer, a bank robber who kills the former drug addict who ratted him out. He is portrayed somewhat sympathetically (it's noted that he never harmed anyone during a robbery and at the end of the episode he even turns himself in so his wife doesn't lose custody of their daughter). However, at the very end, he ruefully asks Grissom "So where did I screw up?" Grissom then bluntly tells him, "You killed two people."
Notably, he wouldn't have been caught if he hadn't committed the second murder.
A teenage girl accidently kills her younger brother when he catches their uncle forcing himself on her (which results in a child) and threatens to tell their mom, as the unfavourite she knows her mom would sooner believe she'd forced herself on her uncle than the other way around.
Her mother later on when she kills her husband who loudly tries to take the blame for killing her son. She even acknowledges that all this could have been avoided if she'd been a better mother so her daughter could feel like she could trust her.
In the "Fare Game" episode of CSI: New York, a chef is discovered to be the murderer of a millionaire who got her millions through multiple Frivolous Lawsuits, of which he was one of the victims. After finally dragging himself out of bankruptcy, divorce, and a ruined life to try again working at a new restaurant and under a new name, she showed up at his new place with the intent of pulling the exact same scheme on his new boss, and he snapped, tracked her down, and killed her by letting her choke on one of the octopi served at the restaurant in an echo of the stunt she'd originally pulled as an excuse to sue him.
The guy from the B-plot of the above was also sympathetic. He was the participant in a water gun game were players were encouraged to creativly trick targets into letting down their guard to be 'assassinated. The victim tricked his soon to be killer, a desperate actor trying to provide for his family into thinking he got a part only to 'kill' him. The killer decided to get back at him by taking a blank gun and firing it into him from point blank range, sadly that was so close that even the blanks would be lethal and it killed him.
From the same series, there's the perp from "Prey": the victim was a stalker who had already caused one of his victims to commit suicide. The perp was another victim whom the law did very little to protect (a few restraining orders, the violations of which only got the stalker a few days in jail) and had even changed her name and moved to another city to escape, only for him to follow her. Feeling that she had no option other than killing herself or be killed, she finally killed him. The team feels pretty sympathetic towards her (even Mac, who. in an earlier episode. has shown disgust to a rape victim who killed rapists aquitted on technicalities) and Hawkes even reassures her that since she only left circumstantial evidence (the woman audited a class that Stella taught), it will be very hard for her to be convicted.
The cheerleader who poisoned a man with atropine during a basketball game. Why? Because, during another game some time before, he had mocked her for being overweight, which led her to a completely undeserved Humiliation Conga (including a sudden break-up). The girl managed to lose weight and carry out a Gambit Roulette to get her revenge.
The epitome, though, is the one guy who is responsible, by complete and total accident, for the death of his grandmother, wife, and next door neighbor, and winds up buried up to his waist in cement for it.
Well, he was trying to dispose of evidence (his wife's body). If he ran away he wouldn't have been caught.
He was also robbed while stuck in the cement.
And another in a different episode, who, because of false advertising and criminal negligence on the part of joke store owner Laughing Larry, had a childhood friend die in front of him when they were ten years old. He promptly stopped reading any comic books or playing with any toys, and when he got married, later, refused to let his son do either of those or play outside. When his wife divorced and placed him with a restraining order, he understood he was in the wrong, and blamed Laughing Larry for making him that way, deciding to kill him with a lethal Explosive Cigar. Unfortunately, Laughing Larry gave the cigar to an innocent man. The killer felt deeply guilty and even tried to stop the man before it blew up and killed him, and was willing to pay for his crime, so long as he knew that Laughing Larry would never laugh again.
And another at the end of a fourth season episode had a police commissioner shoot an unarmed inmate inside the interrogation room because the inmate was a 30+ year old convicted sexual predator who, along with another predator, forged fake birth certificates to take advantage of the first one's teenaged looking appearance to enroll in high school and lure teenaged girls to their shared home, get them drunk, and rape them together. The only known victim (as in, many others exist but they haven't been shown) was the police commissioner's young daughter, who was humiliated and traumatized by the ordeal and only came forward when she was seen on footage after talking to a guidance councilor about the ordeal just before he's murdered. From everyone's reaction, combined with the commissioner's face afterwards, they know he's going to jail for it, but it damn sure is worth it.
Subverted in "Coming of Rage" where the killer describes her plan to make herself into one of these for her trial, despite planning the cold-blooded murder of the victim. Sarah doesn't buy it. Of course, in CSI, you know you can't be sympathetic if Sarah doesn't sympathize with you...
In "Blood Drops," an entire family is murdered except for the two daughters, one teenaged, the other much younger. Turns out the murder was arranged by the older girl - her father had been sexually abusing her for years, and the younger girl was actually her own daughter, the product of the abuse. When their father began turning his attention on the younger girl, it was the last straw, and she convinced a couple of her male classmates to kill not only him but also her mother and her brothers for knowing about the abuse and not doing anything to protect her.
Another one in CSI Miami, a mother was killed at her home. At first, as usual, the first suspect is her husband, and later, her daughter's boyfriend, who got some glass fragments on his shoes traced to a broken lamp in the house. However, they found a video which was over-recorded over an old recording, and the old recording showed that, indeed, the 'monster' in the house was actually the mother, not the father. She was killed by her young son, and her eldest daughter, who just seen him do it, followed suit and beat her up with a bat a few more times in the head.
"The Reaper's Helper" (euthanasia for AIDS sufferers).
"Indifference" (A woman abuses her child as she is being abused by her husband).
In one early episode, a girl kills a man on the bus because she thinks he's about to rape her. It's turned into a cause celebre (she's white, he's black, it's thought she assumed he would rape her because of his race) when it turns out that he had committed numerous rapes in the past.
"Identity": an elderly man kills the guy who faked his identity and used it to sell his house on the market. The victim was counting on the guy being too old and feeble to do anything about it.
Monk once featured a (nearly) blind woman who was portrayed quite sympathetically, even after it was revealed that she was the murderer. She was exacting revenge on the drunk driver who killed her parents and blinded her - but she regained her sight some years back, and began plotting the murder.
In another episode, Monk and Stottlemeyer had to arrest the mother of the first woman Monk had fallen in love with in a very long time for killing the equivalent of her nation's Slobodan Milosevic.
There was also the guy who ordered a crime that unexpectedly led to the murder of a housekeeper, but he'd done it as part of a Batman Gambit to make his ex-wife fall in love and get married again so that he wouldn't have to pay alimony anymore, and had planned the crime for what he'd thought was the housekeeper's night off. What's more, his plan worked.
At least one killer in NUMB3RS, particularly one who caused domino-effect killings (he shoots at Gang A, who retaliates against Gang B, who retaliates back, people get caught in the crossfire...repeat until about 150 people are dead) after his young son was murdered by gangsters. By the time the crew catches up with him, he is very clearly insane.
Present in some Jonathan Creek episodes. The most extreme is one episode in which there were, IIRC, six murderers (or maybe seven), all but one of whom were highly sympathetic.
Appeared on NCIS - a prison inmate was in there because she'd killed her boyfriend, who had been abusing her. Made worse when we learn that she killed one of the guards because he'd been coercing her daughter to sleep with him.
Also, Agent Lee was forced to become The Mole by a terrorist information broker, who kidnapped her daughter. She gunned down Agent Langer and frames him for her crimes; but several members of the main cast feel they would've done the same in the same situation.
Happened in Beverly Hills 90210 when Valerie admitted to killing her father after he repeatedly raped her from the time she was 11.
"Blackout": a woman tries to seduce her 13 year old grandson, after sexually abusing her son since he was 13. Her daughter (and the boy's mother) finds out. Her mother has been emotionally abusing her for years. After berating her daughter for being ugly, the victim threatens that she still has power over her grandson, and the daughter drowns her.
"Justice": a serial date rapist avoids punishment in 1982. The younger brother of one of the victims (who witnessed his sister's rape) follows the victims when they confront the rapist. They leave a gun at the scene. The brother picks it up and shoots the rapist.
In the House episode "The Tyrant", the team's Patient of the Week is the president of an African country who is planning to commit genocide. After instinctively calling out a warning that saved the president's life from an assassination attempt, Dr. Chase decides that he can't morally save the man's life again and takes matters into his own hands by faking a blood test so the president would be misdiagnosed and given treatment that, given his actual condition, would kill him.
The latest CW incarnation of Nikita qualifies under this trope because the lead character, Nikita, is shown as sympathetic and is, in fact, supposed to be the hero of the series, yet, in the first episode, shoots dead an innocent bystander in order to allow her mole to infiltrate Division, which is murder no matter what "ends justify the means" rationale may be applied to it.
Except, of course, later in the season, a flashback reveals that the man in question was a drug dealer and was going to be killed by Division anyway.
Rizzoli & Isles features a woman who killed two guys and attempted to kill another during the Boston marathon. She did it because they had gang-raped her big sister when the sister was fifteen, then bought their way out of prosecution, and the sister had killed herself a few years later, and Dad had a heart attack from the stress.
The father from "Paternity", who found out his wife has having an affair and her lover was the real father of his son. He snaps and goes Papa Wolf on her when she intends to divorce him and take her son away from him. It's even speculated that, had she divorced him, he'd still have to pay alimony and child support without having any parental rights whatsoever, despite not loving his son any less because of the reveal.
A CIA analyst who needed to get a list of Cuban double-agents to the Cuban Resistance Movement enlists the help of her longtime friend by paying for her breast implants and inserting the microchip into one of them. Unfortunately for her, the friend was not patriotically-inclined, since she was now part of a drug ring, and tried to blackmail the analyst for more money (which she didn't have). She was forced to retrieve the implant (yes, in that manner) or risk her friend possibly selling it and getting everyone on the list killed. She gets away since the agent behind the Government Conspiracy to frame her drug contacts for the murder covers the whole thing up.
A schizophrenic man kidnapped a child, killed one guy, and injured another. But the reason for his actions was that the facility where he was committed was neglecting its patients, and the reason they discharged him was because he could testify against them for the death of another patient.
A woman and her mother both conspired to kill an old man, because the man had kidnapped her, and several other women, and forced them to be his bride in his own hidden dungeon.
In "Anchor", a defendant is being tried for murdering "anchor babies" (children who are born on American soil, thus becoming legal American citizens, even though their parents are illegally in the U.S.) and he and his defense attorney argue that he was brainwashed by the anti-immgration rantings of a Rush Limbaugh-esque political pundit. When said pundit takes the stand and creates chaos in the courtroom with his testimony, the defendant is acquitted. Before leaving the courtroom, the defendant whispers something in his lawyer's ear. The defendant's face changes to a smug smirk and the lawyer's is akin to Oh Crap. The next scene has Fin bemoaning the loss of the case at a bar when he gets a call from the attorney. When Fin comes to the office, the lawyer says that the defendant revealed to him that he murdered on his own accord instead of the political commentator's and he planned to kill more first-generation Americans. Fin tells him they need to stop the killer, but the camera shows there's no need for that. It cuts to the defendant lying dead on the floor of the lawyer's office in a pool of blood. The last shot shows the lawyer slowly surrendering his gun to Fin. While the lawyer's actions were technically illegal and and would surely result in disbarment and life in prison, you can't help but sympathize with him for killing a bigoted sociopath if it meant saving the lives of several innocent children.
And, speaking of people named Jeffries, Larry Jeffries from Home and Away fits this. His struggle with alcoholism results in the death of one of the more popular recurring characters, but he's never actually portrayed as a total villain. His sons also skirt around this, but they end up not actually causing anyone's death.
Also from Home and Away: Roman Harris' entire story arc revolves around him killing one of his own team.
Barry Hyde, who was responsible for the death of his wife, who was trying to drown their son at the time, and Josh West, who was blackmailing him over the first one.
A fair number of the guilty defendants on The Practice, especially the ones who either committed vigilante killings or were insane at the time of their crimes. (Basically, on this show, the more sympathetic and/or innocent a defendant was, the more likely they were to be found guilty.)
Used every so often on Boston Legal, such as the mother who killed the murderer of her daughter after he got off on a temporary insanity plea.
Amy Pond (no, not that one), in an episode of Supernatural. She was a kitsune and needed human pituitary glands for herself and her young son to survive. For the most part, she got them from people who were already dead... but then her son got sick. Even then, the only person we actually see her kill is a drug dealer.
Max Miller, who telekinetically killed the father and uncle who had physically abused him since childhood. He also tried to kill his stepmother for failing to try and protect him, but turned the gun on himself when Dean stood in front of her. Sam was sympathetic to Max; Dean was not. Of course, considering what they get up to in later seasons, Sam's reasoning that he and Dean were not so different from Max seems pretty accurate.
On The Closer, there is an episode in which a twelve year old boy is found dead in an abandoned house. It turns out that he stood guard while three gang members raped a young woman, and when they left for a while she killed the boy so that she could get away before the others came back and raped her again. Understandably, Brenda refuses to call her a murderer.
Chief Pope: Excuse me. Taylor says you've got Manuel Soto's murderer?
Brenda: No! No, no, no, no. We only found the person who killed him.
Chief Pope: What did I just say?
In spinoff Major Crimes, we have Alfredo Torres, who shot the swim coach who molested his son years ago.
The main character in Brimstone is one. He is a police officer whose wife was raped, the rapist was caught and proven guilty, yet was not convicted due to a legal technicality. So what does the cop do? He hunts down the rapist and kills him in cold blood, using his knowledge of police investigations to cover it up so it doesn't lead back to him (at least beyond the "I won't grieve for him" angle).
Some of the souls escaped from hell also fall into this category. The most prominent one is definitely a Nazi officer who was helping a bunch of Jews escape Germany, but he got too scared of getting caught and informed the regime, sending the Jews to their deaths. He has been thoroughly tormented by the incident since, and now that he's gotten back on Earth he's devoted his time to helping people.
In the Inspector Lynly series, Lynley confronts one murderer, a doctor who killed the man who gave Lynley's younger brother a batch of poisoned drugs, and sold his hospital water instead of anti-cancer drugs. Lynley is distraught and troubled over having to arrest him. The doctor solves the problem for him by committing suicide.
One of the common results of the Murder Ballad is to make the killer somewhat sympathetic.
The Short movie Sinead from Within Temptation is a subversion. At first it's a rewinding of a scene in which a woman has shot a large man in the process of assaulting her, seemingly rescuing a little girl. When the scene rewinds to the beginning, and plays normally, it's revealed that the woman was breaking into the house, to steal money and feed her drug habit, the man was her father who was trying to convince her to get sober. She yells at him, and he shows her her daughter whom she had neglected, and forced him to raise. In her paranoia, she aims the gun at him, and he runs to grab it from her, getting shot in the process.
Katerina in Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, who kills her abusive father-in-law and husband.
In the second game, Acro, a paraplegic who wanted to get back at Regina for accidentally crippling him and putting his brother into a deep coma, but ended up killing her father (and his father-figure) Mr. Berry by accident. At the end of the trial, he even breaks down crying.
Also in the second game Mimi Miney was overworked by her boss at a clinic where she worked as a nurse, which resulted in her accidentally killing 14 patients and getting in a car crash which killed her sister and burnt her face off. She thought the only thing to do was to start a new life as her sister Ini Miney (a college student). She handed over a picture of her sister for her face reconstruction surgery and became her sister. However, her boss wasn't doing so well with the impact she had left, so he tried to search her down to prove that the whole thing was her fault through a spirit medium (talks to the deceased). Her only options were to come out from hiding or erase her boss. Guess which one she chose.
In the third game, Godot only murdered Misty Fey (possessed by the spirit of Dahlia) to protect the little sister of the woman he'd loved. Afterwards, he continually directed the trial to make sure Phoenix eventually found him guilty. It's also implied that Misty went into the situation willing to die for her daughter.
Investigations 2 has, of all things the Big Bad turning out to be one of these. Here's a brief rundown: As a kid, his father only valued him as a taste tester for his cooking. His father's colleague had him kidnapped to blackmail the father, and the colleague's son (the murderer's best friend) helped. They both ended up locked in a car on a snowy night and would have frozen to death were it not for a certain assassin saving them. His father then fled the country after committing a murder, not caring whatsoever that he was abandoning his son. He ended up at what was apparently an Orphanage of Fear, where he one day witnessed the orphanage's owner, the chief prosecutor and body double of the President of Zheng Fa kidnap the real President, demand millions of dollars in ransom, then have him assassinated anyway, and overheard them planning to kill the assassin too. All three of them got away with it. Naturally, this destroyed his faith in pretty much everything. He conducted an elaborate plan to bring all three to justice, killing the body double himself while getting the others arrested. After all that, can you really blame him for what he became?
Marlon Rimes the culprit of the DLC case in Dual Destinies, similar to Acro above. Even though he didn't really kill anyone, (the victim fell back-first into a drained pool and Rimes tried to save him) he tried to kill the whale he thought was responsible for his girlfriend's death. Turns out, not only was it a different whale, but his girlfriend died because of a heart condition. Also like Acro, he breaks down and demands a guilty verdict for him, if it means Sasha, the woman who reminds him of his girlfriend goes free. Because he really didn't kill anyone, and had the Judge's sympathies, he was released not too long after and remains the only culprit who was never really guilty of anything.
Silent Hill 2 has James, the protagonist, who killed his wife. In an unusual variant, both the murderer and the victim are very sympathetic. There is also Angela, who killed her physically and sexually abusive father and brother (the latter's murder is only mentioned in the game's Japan-only novelization). Then there's Eddie, whose first murder was a sympathetic one but he became obsessed with killing after some psychological tormenting.
From Silent Hill 4, we get an interesting example with Walter Sullivan. Most, if not all, of the people he killed caused him some grievance before, but he doesn't hate them, it's just that by killing them, he'll appease his goddess and be reunited with his mother.
The Origami Killer, aka Scott Shelby, from Heavy Rain is revealed to be this by the game's end.
Saints Row 2, mostly. Subverted when "The Boss" pulls off a few kills that are patently unjustifiable, reflecting how he/she has become a power-hungry cutthroat rather than an Anti-Hero gangster. Even unrepentant mass murderer Johnny Gat looks nice in comparison.
Ironically, in that story arc, The Boss' cruelest moment was when s/he didn't kill someone. It was when s/he pointlessly burned and crippled Matt's hand with fireworks for no other reason than to send a message to Maero since he was Maero's best friend (he only did tattoos for the gang, nothing more).
Johnny is especially easy to sympathize with during the cemetery burial of a crime rival who was practically begging for it.
In Danganronpa, Leon and Mondo are this. The first because his victim started it by luring him into a trap to kill him, although since he had to break a door down to kill his attacker the level of sympathy for him goes down slightly. The manga mitigates this by implying that Leon wasn't trying to kill the attacker, but calm her down then he ended up killing her by accident. The second because he did it by a loss of self-control after his Berserk Button was triggered, not out of premeditated malice, and he took the time to mess with the crime scene to cover up his victim's "big secret". That, and he makes no attempt to escape being tied to a motorcycle for Monokuma's execution, accepting the punishment for his crime.
The game also provides an aversion with Celes. This is because Celes orchestrated the deaths of two people, with the help of an accomplice, just to win Monokuma's ten million yen so she could live in a big fancy castle and be waited on hand and foot by millions of men in dressed as vampires. Everyone else is disgusted that she'd orchestrate murders for a petty reason like that. This may be a double subversion, however, considering that Celes is a Consummate Liar so all those petty reasons may be a lie and up to the player's interpretation on whether she deserves sympathy or not, and to note, that petty reason was her secondary motive, her primary motive was simply 'getting out of the place', something that others probably would agree on, and even she eventually admits her murders and tried to go Face Death with Dignity... and even Naegi can spot that she probably is lying on that too, she's actually terrified. That being said, for all her pettiness, she didn't even try to curse those who condemn her, which would've been in-line with the pettiness she presents. So yeah, it's... kind of zig-zagged in the end.
Super Dangan Ronpa 2 makes even greater use of this trope; all but one of the game's murderers can be considered examples and even the one who doesn't qualify has some woobie traits. The murderers in the first and fourth chapters are the best examples, since their crimes qualify as Accidental Murder.
Not all of the Splicers in BioShock are mindless psychopaths. It's hard to feel any pity for Toasty (a filthy lecher) or Ladysmith (a racist Rich Bitch). But then there's Pigskin, a teenage football player pushed into hunting you down on threat of death at the hands of the other Splicers, who calls for his parents when he's not trying to kill you. Or Rosebud, who's trapped in the memory of the day Ryan's men took her daughter from her, and often hallucinates that you're the man who did it. You still have to kill them in self-defense, but it's hard not to feel bad about it.